Monday, 4 March 2013

Modifying our brains - can we make a cyborg?

With the recent developments in bionic eyes and bionic limbs hitting the news, an old question becomes ever more relevant - will we ever create true 'cyborgs' - part human, part robot?

In some ways we already are - if people's synthetic limbs can be connected to their brains in order to feel sensation. The US military has used controls wired to an insect brain to get a beetle to fly around with a tiny spy camera attached. They can actually control its movements remotely by stimulating its brain!

But still, these developments somehow feels like useful add-ons. Is there a line which will someday be crossed, requiring us to redefine what it means to be human?

How far will technology go? Image by The PIX-JOCKEY

What next?

One thing is for certain: this research is only going to go in on direction - it's going to get better and more sophisticated. Systems are going to become more sensitive, and increasingly miniaturised too. With further developments in creating artificial brain cells, it may one day be possible to have parts of the brain bionically replaced as well.

How will it feel to have synthetic brain parts?

In some ways, we already think with more than one 'brain' - our brains contain a primitive 'reptilian brain' composed of the brainstem and the thalamus which is responsible for basic bodily functions and basic emotions, and an evolutionarily newer 'thinking brain' - the neocortex - which is responsible for our more complicated perceptions and thoughts.

Perhaps these parts of the brain could be linked to Freud's ego and id - conscious and unconscious mind (Freud, 1910).

However, to 'think' with artificial brain parts? In some respects our mind can be reduced to the activity of a huge number of brain cells, each fairly simple. But for all our sophisticated modern neuroscience, the question of how this network leads to conscious thought - the 'mind-body problem' - has yet to be answered satisfactorily. It would certainly be interesting to know if people 'felt' different after having a synthetic brain system connected up.

Will it catch on?

At the moment, the new technology described above is helping people with visual or physical impairments. But if the technology became good enough, would it start to have a general appeal? Would we see athletes opt for bionic replacement body parts, for example?

And in terms of bionic brain parts, what would be the implications for personal safety and privacy if our brains had the same vulnerability to hackers as our computers currently have? Food for thought. Clearly there are a lot of questions - please post your thoughts in the comments!

Reference

Freud, S. (1910).  The origin and development of psychoanalysis. (Translated by H.W. Chase). American Journal of Psychology, 21, 181-218.

This post is part of #BlogFlash2013 - 30 days of 
flash blogging - using the prompt 'technology' http://bit.ly/Y2BMEc

12 comments:

  1. Again very interesting ideas. I'm intrigued and somewhat scared (read my post for the reasons ;)) of the idea of cyborgs. It just sounds like sci-fi for me. The fi part of it.

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  2. It certainly is food for thought Jonathan, but I'm with Mervi. Sci-fi has frightened me since I was a child, and I don't think I want to be around when/if the above happens. Of course, I'd probably change my mind if my life depended on it though. Sheesh, what kind of person does that make me?

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    1. Thanks you two... yeah it's hard to believe any of this can really happen, isn't it?

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  3. This reminds me of a YA Science Fiction book called Cinder by Marissa Meyer. It's a futuristic Cinderella tale. The main character is a cyborg (she loses a FOOT instead of a SHOE at the ball) and cyborgs are heavily discriminated against. I guess once we solve the world's racial discrimination we'll discriminate against the not-100% human?

    Linda Ulleseit

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    1. Interesting idea - discrimination against cyborgs. Or perhaps it will be more a case of discrimination against non-cyborgs..

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  4. Great post! Since I was young, I have been interested in technology and the brain. My ideal bionic brain enhancement would somehow be able to transcribe my thoughts eliminating the need to type.

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    1. That would be nice! Or what about unlimited data storage - memorise anything you like? :D

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  5. I've always been intrigued with science fiction. Do I think we will ever get to that place where we've created cyborgs? Well, when I was a child, I LOVED the Bionic Man and the Bionic Woman. I never imagined that one day there would actually be bionic limbs and bionic eyes. I have to wonder if those responsible for creating such things were maybe...just possibly inspired by the science fiction of shows like that!

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    1. I bet it does inspire technological developments... And inspire young scientists too! Thanks for commenting :)

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  6. Interesting speculation. It definitely seems our medical practices are expanding to accept more and more of the engineered.

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  7. I never considered the hacking aspect. That's very thought-provoking (and a little frightening). Another great post!

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  8. If someone can create it, someone can hack it. For every alleged advancement, we also seem to create yet another problem and we appear to have accepted this situation as a given. We are a product of our scientific method as such as it is a product of us. Tough to get oneself out of such a loop. As you can see Jonathan, a very thought-provoking blog. Thank you.

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